Atma: Strengthening the Education Sector in IndiaHila Mehr
NGOs are coming up with some of the best low-cost, high-quality solutions to improve the quality of education in India. While these NGOs are experts in the education space, many lack the organizational management support they require to have maximum impact. Some NGOs may need to design a long-term strategic plan, while others may require new human resources processes. They also need a venue to collaborate with other organizations working in education.
Atma, a Mumbai-based NGO, fills this niche by providing capacity building consulting and volunteer staff support to education organizations in India. In addition, Atma facilitates collaboration between organizations in India’s education sector. Hayley (Lee) Bolding and Adrienne van Dok— two young women from Australia and the Netherlands who initially came to India as AISEC interns—founded Atma in 2007. They saw a need for professional assistance for NGOs, and built the organization around a vision for quality education for all children in India. Executive Director Mary Ellen Matsui joined Atma in 2008, originally as a volunteer working with an education NGO in Mumbai.
Atma works with partner organizations—high-potential NGOs open to change and already delivering high-quality service. Atma’s goal in identifying partners is to understand each organization as a whole—its history, successes, challenges, and team members. The chemistry between the organization and Atma’s staff is essential to a successful partnership. “Fit is really critical,” says Matsui. Partners work in the education space whether they are a school or providing additional services in the field of education. Atma’s current partners include Mimaansa, Muskan Foundation, New Resolution India, Apne Aap Women’s Collective (AAWC), Avanti Fellows, Masoom, and Foundation for Mother and Child Health (FMCH).
After selecting a partner organization, Atma identifies areas for improvement in the organization, and then teams the partner with Atma volunteers to help implement agreed-upon solutions. “We have their best interest in mind and understand what they are looking for. We help them and hold them to the agenda that they set” explains Matsui. To assess impact, Atma uses a life-stage survey on organizational and behavioral change, starting at the beginning of the partnership. They evaluate their partners throughout the consulting process.
Atma gives 1200 hours a year to each partner says Matsui. In 2011-2012, Atma provided 7929 total service hours to Atma Partners. Atma’s model is unique among similar capacity building organizations due to their high-touch model through their volunteers.Their volunteer program is the centerpiece of their work. Atma volunteers are full-time, unpaid professionals, and often individuals looking to shift to development work from the corporate sector. Atma looks for professionals who can provide one-on-one expert support to the partner organization for a period of three months on a specific aspect of a long-term project. Volunteers typically stay in India or the sector after their volunteer experience. Atma partners hired 10 volunteers for permanent positions, one volunteer started their own social enterprise, and four volunteers joined Atma’s permanent staff. Atma has hosted 120 volunteers from 29 countries, while it maintains a staff of 10.
To facilitate connections between their partners and create more dialogue about education problems and solutions, Atma brings their partners and others in the education space together to collaborate on issues affecting the sector. They recently held a mobile technology discussion and workshop for their partners, featuring a panel of organizations using mobile technology in education. Atma hopes these sessions will result in collaboration and inspiration among Atma partners and outside organizations. “I want more than anything to see that we’ve been able to establish a network and meaningful conversation among education professionals. People are really exchanging, learning, growing, and doing innovative things because they see others doing it,” says Matsui.
Capacity building support is an increasingly popular service for NGOs and social enterprises globally, but Atma stands out for its commitment to education organizations in India. “Atma is unique in that though our services could be provided to other organizations in the social sector, we’re really focused on education and bringing together more of our partners to create a movement for higher quality education in India” says Matsui.